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4/24/12

Why Deceit Is Good for You

Bookmark and Share In 1995 at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the usual psychologists, anthropologists, and other academics showed up for the annual meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society. Science journalist John Horgan was also there. He heard various presentations, talked to various members and found that "the most influential thinker there, arguably, was a scruffily bearded fellow, wearing sunglasses and a knitted cap, who never gave a talk. He lurked around the margins of the conference." Horgan "spotted him puffing a joint outside a meeting hall."

The man was Robert Trivers. Years later, in 2011 Trivers published another book, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. Chief among its important and interesting ideas, the book holds that evolution made deceit advantageous for a species. Trivers finds deceit in camouflaged sea creatures as well as infants who bawl loudly for momma's attention over a boo-boo. It is all part of the evolutionary struggle. In a sense, another Trivers book on reciprocal altruism, in which doing good is also evolutionarily beneficial, is the moral flip-side to his exploration of deceit.

Trivers examines how our brains regularly fool us. “At every single stage,’’ he writes, “from its biased arrival, to its biased encoding, to organizing it around false logic, to misremembering and then misrepresenting it to others, the mind continually acts to distort information flow in favor of the usual good goal of appearing better than one really is.’’ When reading this, I am reminded of surveys which reveal that every driver on the road thinks he or she is above average.

Steven Pinker has called Trivers "an underappreciated genius."

From John Horgan's review of the book:

 ~One intriguing theme running through “The Folly of Fools” is that self-­deception can affect our susceptibility to disease, for ill or good. Trivers speculates that some illusions — for example, a daughter’s insistence that her alcoholic, abusive father is a good man — require so much effort to maintain that they drain energy away from our immune systems. Conversely, religious fundamentalism, which often restricts mating or even interactions with outsiders, may help protect the faithful from parasites carried by infidels. According to Trivers, religions are more likely to split into rival factions in regions with high rates of infectious disease.

 ~ Fooling others yields obvious benefits, but why do we so often fool ourselves? Trivers provides a couple of answers. First, believing that we’re smarter, sexier and more righteous than we really are — or than others consider us to be — can help us seduce and persuade others and even improve our health, via the placebo effect, for example. And the more we believe our own lies, the more sincerely, and hence effectively, we can lie to others. “We hide reality from our conscious minds the better to hide it from onlookers,” Trivers explains. But our illusions can have devastating consequences, from the dissolution of a marriage to stock-market collapses and world wars. More Bookmark and Share Subscribe in a reader

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